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Art, Love, and the Healing Ambiguities of Shirkers

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been witness to a cultural reckoning with a dynamic that is all too familiar to many of us: that of some older and more powerful and often trusted person using their power over a younger or less powerful person, in ways ranging from normalized and merely frustrating to deeply traumatic and even illegal. In the past several months alone, cinema has plumbed some of the most horrific of these real stories, as in Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” an autobiographical narrative film where the filmmaker comes to understand what she thought of as a teenage affair with an older man was actually manipulative, pedophilic, and scarring. There are similar stories in “Abducted in Plain Sight” and “Leaving Neverland,” in which the now-adult victims of systematic child sexual abuse grapple not only with the pain of revisited memories, but the confusion of still somehow loving the person who harmed them. 

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Another one is Sandi Tan’s documentary, “Shirkers.” The movie traces her film-obsessed adolescence in Singapore, her film classes with the mysterious Georges Cardona, her lonely time at school in London, and the formative summer when she went on a road trip at age 18 with the 40-something Georges. It also details the summer when she was 19 and starred in a film she wrote—“Shirkers”—directed by Georges, in which she roped all of her friends into pouring in endless effort, and into which she poured her soul and her financial savings. After these years of trust and mentorship and friendship, and after that brutal, creatively fertile summer, Georges simply ... disappeared. And so did the film.

Tan’s documentary is named after the film stolen from her and her collaborators by Cardona. It’s a fascinating reflection on what-ifs that speaks to parallel abuses: the professional and the personal. Tan doesn’t allege anything nearly as violent or damaging as the acts described in some of the other films mentioned here, but we can see similarities. “Shirkers” was released in a moment where we’re starting to acknowledge an epidemic of abuses of power of varying magnitude, along with a cultural permissiveness that lets them keep happening.

While Tan has enjoyed a successful career as an impressively precocious film critic, novelist, and filmmaker, it’s impossible to watch “Shirkers” and avoid wondering—as Tan herself does in the film—what her career would look like had she been able to finish her first feature. The film doesn’t have any pat answers to that question. Tan vacillates between recognizing the beauty and creativity of the script and the soundtrack-less recovered footage, while also criticizing her own lead performance; a film critic speaks to the creativity of the project and insists that it would have been unique in Singaporean film history; and Tan reflects on later films like “Rushmore” that have elements of her movie and wonders if she would have created a similarly individual style as those that have earned critical acclaim for (mostly male) filmmakers. 

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I find it impossible to entertain these questions and not feel the same ache of what-if that I felt reading the testimonies of the women whose careers were stalled or derailed by Louis CK and Harvey Weinstein. Dana Min Goodman, Julia Wolov, Rebecca Corry, and Abby Schachner have all spoken about the impact their encounters with CK had on their careers, with Schachner going so far as to say it discouraged her from pursuing comedy. And more than a few characters have been spilled speculating what the careers of many of Weinstein’s victims would have looked like had he not worked against them, with Peter Jackson going so far as to say that he passed on casting Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino based on Weinstein’s interference. Maybe Tan’s career would be exactly the same if Cardona hadn’t sabotaged her first film. But maybe it wouldn’t. Who knows what films she would have made, what impact she would have had on the Singaporean film industry?

But what gnaws at me even more than the professional undermining is the personal betrayal. While Tan first met Georges in a film class at 16 years old, the majority of their relationship took place when she was legally an adult, and he was in his 40s. Two adults. And yet anyone who has spent time with a teenager knows there’s a difference between a girl who has technically reached adulthood and a middle-aged man. Georges’ manipulation and vampiric jealousy didn’t know gender—he also wrecked the film of a male protege. But his destructive relationship with Tan has an undeniable wrinkle of the gendered and the sexual, as when Tan—then a teenage girl—describes a charged touch on the arm, a request to touch his belly, his threats against her male friends. 

On a recent episode of the podcast “Switchblade Sisters,” Tan refused to identify herself as a victim in her story: “If I were to reduce [Georges] to a villain, I’m actually doing a disservice to myself because it’s kind of negating the fact that he had once been my best friend. I was not a dumb kid. I didn’t just willingly let this kind of wolf into my innocent lamb life. I went in fully cognizant of the fact that he wasn’t a complete truth teller. But he was the most interesting person who saw me as an artist who had stories to tell, who kind of saw me as a human. And that was kind of gratifying on its own. And he actually expanded my world, he was a great mentor. We talked about the French New Wave, we really got into movies, I really got into movies big at that point, So to kind of paint him as a villain and discard him, you’re discarding that younger you as well and your instincts at that point.” 

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That statement, that framing of the relationship has rattled in my brain since I heard it, somehow both clarifying and further clouding my feelings about the relationships I had as a younger person with older people, with older men. I was 22 and he was 46. I was reading Turgenev in a fast-casual chain. He struck up a conversation. We discussed Russian literature, my acting career that was grinding away to nowhere, his travels, the languages he knew, his work, his family history. I felt a twinge of disappointment after leaving without exchanging information, though it had a sort of melancholy correctness. He was more resourceful, and he messaged me on Facebook—a profile under a pseudonym. He was established, successful, easy to Google.

We went on a date. Or a friendly lunch? Or a date. He mentioned his child (closer to my age than his), and his ex-partner, never married (a photo I’d seen online identified a woman as his wife). I was broke and awed by the fancy meal and wine—during the day! And we discussed art and travel and culture, and he told me I was brilliant and beautiful and so incredibly special. His stories didn’t always add up, but the intoxication of being desired! An incredible thrill. Things fizzled after he unexpectedly appeared at my job and I received a series of discomfiting emails. Even so, we met a few more times over the years. Each encounter left me disappointed, sometimes disgusted. But whatever red flags appeared, I felt some inexplicable pull to reconnect. 

I thought of this as I watched “Shirkers”—of encouragement and denigration, of manipulation and trust and love. 

At the ripe age of 26, I have fewer of these experiences. Whether because I’m older and less attractive to these sorts of men or because I have a more finely tuned security system for detecting their type, I rarely find myself on dates where men in their 30s and 40s marvel at how smart I am, how clever I am, how much I’ve read, where they interrupt me mid-sentence to say that they were lost in my eyes. And while I relish the newfound equality in my relationships, I occasionally find myself yearning for those unequal power dynamics—for the way I was made to feel special and exceptional, like a prize, and for the fact that while there was clearly something off and paternalistic about my interactions with these older men, they introduced me to books that have become cherished favorites, made me want to dive fully into intellectual life, to pursue my art with gusto. 

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I return again and again to the slippery ambiguity that characterizes “Shirkers.” Throughout the film, Tan is characterized—both by herself and the friends she interviews—as alternately an adult and a child, a victim and a partner in crime, a willing participant and a dupe. Her single-minded pursuit of art and her implicit trust that Georges was doing the same is both what frames her as a self-aware adult and what makes her vulnerable to Georges’ manipulation. As we as a culture attempt to course correct and shun abusers and manipulators in favor of vulnerable people and survivors, Tan and “Shirkers” have provided me with a personally liberating framework. I have been a naïve girl and a willful woman, I’ve been undermined and energized, I can have a nemesis and a friend, I can question the intents of others, but ultimately know the woman I have become.

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